San Francisco, 1905

Market Street, 1905

A cameraman takes one of those newfangled motion picture cameras on a streetcar driving down Market Street in San Francisco in 1905, a year before the big earthquake: Video of San Francisco in 1905

Notice how many horses and how few cars there are, yet I don’t see any horse apples lying on the road. Somebody must have been dilligent in cleaning up after the horses. One of the reasons why people went to cars was that they polluted less than horses, which dropped horse crap everywhere. In New York, they left dead horses in the street until they decomposed enough to saw them up easily and cart them away piecemeal.


Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab

Popular Mechanics mentioned the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab in its recent article, “The Story Behind 5 Banned Toys and Games.” Gilbert put the toy on the market back in 1950 to 1951 and then, inexplicably, withdrew it. It cost fifty bucks, which is about $440 today, which may be why it didn’t last. However, other clues to the reasons for its disappearance may be the radioactive uranium ore that came with it. Kids and uranium. What could go wrong?

Called “the most elaborate Atomic Energy educational set ever produced” by the Oak Ridge Associated Universities, this sophisticated science kit contained four types of uranium ore, its very own Geiger counter and a comic book called Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom. A form on the back of the instruction manual allowed a burgeoning Ernest Rutherford to send a note to New Haven, Conn., bearing the message, “Gentlemen: I need replacements for the following radioactive sources, (check which): ALPHA____, BETA _____, GAMMA ______ or CLOUD CHAMBER SOURCE____.”

Mechanical engineer and inveterate tinkerer Bill Gurstelle fondly recalls the Atomic Energy Lab, saying, “everybody wanted that kit.” Nowadays, he adds, “science kits are just sugar and salt.” This kit appeared 21 years too soon—the as-yet-nonexistent CPSC never got a chance to ban it. In the meantime, here are the results of our recent experiments with eight new, and decidedly less radioactive, science kits.

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth

Elmer Ellsworth Tunic

The New York Historical Society is hosting an exhibit, “Lincoln and New York,” through March 25, 2010 which is worth a look, if you’re in the neighborhood.  The NYHS is right across the street from Central Park at 170 Central Park West between 76th & 77th Street.  You can learn a lot of interesting stuff about Lincoln’s visit and speech at the Cooper Union which allowed Lincoln to break through to a national audience.  Upstate New York voted for Lincoln but not so Manhattan, where wealthy merchants treasured their trade with the South and liberal Irish immigrants opposed him.

The exhibit features the original handwritten letter from Lincoln to Horace Greeley, Republican editor of the New York Tribune, that emphasized Lincoln’s paramount aim was to save the Union.  If he could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would do that.  If he could save the Union by not freeing any slaves, he would do that.  And if he could do it by freeing some and leaving others in slavery, he would do that, too.  I read the whole letter and found Lincoln had terrible penmanship.

Colonel Ephraim Elmer Ellsworth was a New Yorker who went to Chicago to form a drill unit of  National Guard volunteers which he dressed in Zouave uniforms, very snazzy for the times, calling them the Rockford City Greys.  He took the Greys all over the North for drill demonstrations, then took a leave to work with Lincoln in Springfield for his campaign in 1860, becaming close friends with Lincoln.  Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, said “Lincoln loved him like a younger brother.”   Lincoln’s kids loved Ellsworth, too.

On May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia’s seccession from the Union, troops were sent across the river from the White House to capture Alexandria, VA, including a New York regiment commanded by Colonel Ellsworth.  He had written to his fiancee back in Rockford, IL the night before,  “My own darling Kitty, if anything should happen, the only thing I can leave you — the highest happiness I looked for on earth was a union with you.”

There was a large rebel flag flying from the Marshall House, a hotel on King Street in Alexandria, a flag that President and Mrs. Lincoln could see from the White House with a telescope.  Colonel Ellsworth took it down and was descending the stairs, flag in arm, when he came across the hotel owner, James W. Jackson, on the third floor landing.  Jackson raised his double barrelled shotgun to  fire, but Corporal Francis E. Brownell batted it away with his musket.  Jackson’s first shot hit Ellsworth dead in the chest followed by a second shot at Brownell that missed.  Brownell returned fire and hit Jackson, then bayonetted his body until it tumbled down the stairs.

Ellsworth lay dead on top of the bloody Confederate flag, the first casualty of the Civil War.  A medal on his uniform had been blown into his chest by the force of the blast.  His death brought the North into a state of mourning, with bells tolling and flags lowered to half staff.  Lincoln, in particular, was grief-stricken to see his friend’s body, ordering an honor guard to bring it to the White House to lay in state.  He was only 24 years old.

The President burst into tears at the news of the Union’s first war casualty among a company of Senators, “Excuse me but I cannot talk. I will make no apology, gentlemen, for my weakness but I knew Ellsworth well, and held him in great regard.”   The Lincolns both went to the Navy Yard to view Ellsworth’s body, where the President exclaimed,  “My boy! My boy! Was it necessary this sacrifice should be!”  Lincoln wrote to Ellsworth’s parents, “In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. … In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child. May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power.”  Lincoln put Ellsworth’s father on the payroll of the Department of War.

After the funeral, Ellsworth was taken to his native New York where he laid in state at City Hall.  Thousands of mourners paid their respects.  Colonel Ellsworth was taken by train to his hometown of Mechanicsville, New York, where he was laid to rest in a grave overlooking the Hudson.  A cult arose that expressed itself in poems, songs, sermons, and memorial envelopes mourning his loss.  Parents named their babies after him. Towns and streets were named for him.   

The flag which Ellsworth had died to remove was given to Mrs. Lincoln. Its memory disturbed her and she placed it in a drawer from which Tad Lincoln retrieved it. Occasionally, he would take it out and wave it on official occasions. Once, “when the President was reviewing some troops from the portico of the White House, Tad sneaked this flag out and waved it back of the President, who stood with a flag in his hands. The sight of a rebel flag on such an occasion caused some commotion, and when the President saw what was happening he pinioned his bad boy and the flag in his strong arms and handed them together to an orderly, who carried the offenders within,” wrote Julia Taft.

Bits of Ellsworth’s flag became holy relics.  In 1894, Brownell’s widow sold small pieces of the flag for $10 and $15 each.  Most of the flag would up at the The New York State Military Museum.  The Veterans Research Center in Saratoga Springs has some of the flag and Ellsworth’s uniform, showing the hole from the fatal shot.

The Marshall House stood on the corner of King and South Pitt streets. It was torn down in the 1950’s.  It has been replaced by the Hotel Monaco, which bears a plaque at the corner commemorating the death of James W. Jackson, killed “for defending his property,” but makes no mention of his shotgun slaying of Colonel Ellsworth.  Artifacts collected during the construction process were preserved by local archeologists and may be seen in the Old Torpedo Factory’s third floor exhibit (the Alexandria Archaeology Museum), three blocks away on King Street

Odd Box In Metro

I came across this odd box last Friday night in the Crystal City Metro Station, parked under the escalator and chained to the rail. It had a sticker on it that said that it came from the “Agon Force Protection” something or other. Hmmm. The bell on the top looks like a collector of some kind to trap particles in the air. My suspicion is that this is some kind of chemical or biological weapons detector, sampling the air for threats. Crystal City is virtually the Pentagon annex, where the overflow of offices go, just a couple stops from the Pentagon.

One wonders if the Crotch Bombers failed Christmas surprise has prompted a quiet security escalation beyond the arlines.

The Magic Year


Steven Den Beste looks at the difference between conservative and liberal as a conflict between materialism and teleology, between practical judgement and utopianism. This year in government, fantasy has trumped reality. Den Beste opines in this essay, that maybe that’s for the best in the long term in order to discredit that way of thinking.

Hard All The Time

General David Petraeus

“In truth, it is, I think, accurate to observe that, as in Iraq in 2007, everything in Afghanistan is hard, and it is hard all the time.”

—Army General David H. Petraeus,
commander, US Central Command,
Times (of London), September 18, 2009.

Libyan Leader Muammar Qaddafi

“If Taliban wants to make a religious state, OK, like the Vatican. Vatican doesn’t constitute a danger against us? No. It’s a religious country, very peaceful. And if Taliban wants to make an Islamic emirate, who said that the Taliban is an enemy?”

—Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi,
Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
and Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution;
speech to UN; September 23, 2009.